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Outside the Astor Theatre, where "A Streetcar Named Desire" is now showing, a black sign pasted across a publicity shot of Marlon Brando's naked back proclaims: "Not Suitable for Children." In the current opinion of the Catholic Legion of Decency, "Streetcar" is suitable for a adults: but they didn't always think that way. The story of how they came to change their mind, told in last Sunday's Time by Elia Kazan, is an interesting case study of the methods of informal censorship.
Kazan, who directed "Streetcar," describes the studio's panic at the news, after the picture had been cleared by the Breen office but before it had been released, that it was marked for a "C" or "Condemned" rating by the Legion. What the studio heads feared, it seems, was not merely that Catholics would be instructed not to see it. "They feared ... that theatres showing the picture would be picketed, might be threatened with boycotts of as long as a year's duration if they dared to show it, that priests would be stationed in the lobbies to take down the names of parishioners who attended. I was told that all these things had happened in Philadelphia when a picture with a 'C' rating was shown there, and, further, that the rating was an invitation for every local censor board in the country to snipe at a picture, to require cuts or to ban it altogether."
This was explained to director Kazan some time after the event. Without consulting him, Warner Brothers had invited a Catholic layman to expurgate the picture, after which it was rewarded with a "B" or "Acceptable" rating.
Obviously, Warner Brothers has a perfect right to make whatever cuts for whatever reasons it chooses; moreover, assuming their fears were reasonably justified, they acted rationally in accordance with their freely-expressed and irreproachable aim, namely, to make a buck. At any rate, the public was not missing out seriously, for the twelve cuts, amounting to four minutes running time, were neither crucial nor titillating--they apparently represented a random selection from the film's footage. From the Legion of Decency's point of view, it was simply doing a job, which was legal, with the most effective means at hand, which also were legal.
No one could deny the Legion's right, under democracy, to express an opinion; but also, under democracy, there must be a limit to the degree of finality a minority opinion should imply. We would like to suggest that the line be drawn thus: the activities of a minority pressure group become intolerable when, and only when, that group possesses the power to enforce its will invariably and without dispute.
The unofficial censoring of "Streetcar" is significant for one reason only. It indicates that the censorship body of the Catholic Church has, in fact, achieved a degree of power prejudicial to the interests of the non-Catholic majority. The Legion of Decency was able to postpone the release date of a picture and reduce its producers to a state of helpless acquiescence, merely by sending a threatening glance in the direction of Hollywood. The capitulation of the studio was complete and final.
As Kazan put it: "I--and for that matter the public--was presented with a finished fact. My picture had been cut to fit the specifications of a code which is not my code, is not the recognized code of the picture industry, and is not the code of the great majority of the audience.
"And that was that. There was no recourse."
Non-Catholic audiences in this country now find their movie fare influenced by a pressure which is neither illegal nor in a useful sense unethical, but simply, from their point of view, excessive. It is a simple pragmatic problem of balance of power. In this case, counter-pressure must be exerted on the producers, to bring to their attention the interests of those whose opinions are not formed by the Legion of Decency, and on the Legion, to induce it to expose its own campaigns to public criticism and debate. Abuses of power will disappear only when the majority of moviegoers stick up for their right to see a film as firmly and as loudly as religious minorities insist on their right to oppose it.
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